I read Hilton Kramer before I met him. When I was in the Army, in response to an essay he published in 1959 in Commentary on the subject of James Thurber’s book on Harold Ross and The New Yorker, I wrote a letter-to-the-editor arguing against his attack on the magazine and its founding editor. Fortunately, Hilton did not respond to my letter, else I should have required a scalp transplant and might today be wearing a hairpiece, for he was, among his other talents, a powerful polemicist, one of the best in the business.
A few years later, working now at The New Leader magazine in New York, I edited Hilton, who worked briefly as that magazine’s art critic. I write that “I edited” him, but in truth there wasn’t much to edit, for his copy, as we call it in the trade, was lucid and free of errors. Although Kramer was often a Jewish name, the name Hilton was not. His first name and the formality of his prose left no ethnic or other clues. Hilton was indeed Jewish, and I later learned that he was given his name in honor of a Miss Hilton, a Gloucester, Massachusetts, grade-school teacher who brought homework every night for one of his two older brothers who had rheumatic fever, a service that prevented the boy from having to repeat the grade.
One day Hilton appeared to drop off his copy in person in the shabby New Leader offices on Fifteenth Street, just east of Fifth Avenue, in the old Rand School building. The building also housed union agents, a labor-union-financed organization called the Tamiment Institute, the local headquarters of the International Association of Machinists Union (the site of much boozy partying), and the Rand School Library. An associate editor of the magazine had just given notice, and the principal editor, a man named Myron Kolatch, asked Hilton if he knew anyone who was looking for a job as an editor. “Actually, I do,” said Hilton. “Me.”
The following week Hilton came to work at The New Leader. Suddenly my drab job, one chiefly entailing rewriting Sovietologists whose first language distinctly wasn’t English, became filled with laughter and high spirits. I liked Hilton straightaway, and at lunch together on his first day of work I filled him in on the oddities of life in The New Leader office. I found myself looking forward to returning to work each morning, reluctant to leave in the evening.
We worked in the same room, our desks perhaps twelve feet apart. Hilton was then thirty-four, I twenty-five. He was of medium height, tending toward the stocky, a build not at all athletic yet suggesting strength nonetheless. He wore Brooks Brothers suits and interesting neckties; he had large-framed round glasses, black hair slicked back. His New England accent was distinctive, and could hit high C when he said, as he not infrequently did, the words “Shameless!” and “Scandalous!” The rather philistine editor of The New Leader once asked him if all pieces of art criticism were compelled to use the word oeuvre, to which Hilton responded he wasn’t sure but his own pieces indubitably were.
Before taking this job, Hilton had been the chief editor of Arts, formerly Arts Digest, a magazine devoted to criticism of the visual arts. He knew a great many artists, and knew even more about the corruption of the art world, which he tended to view with a detached amusement. He was also on the periphery of the group now known as the New York Intellectuals, having published in Partisan Review, Commentary, and other of their magazines, though he was younger than most of them.
After Arts, Hilton had tried to live the free-lance life, not easy to do when a review in TheNation might pay $25, one in Commonweal or the Progressive even less. The checks from these magazines were usually handwritten, which somehow made their derisory sums even more dispiriting. Still, it was a time in which one could live in decent poverty. Hilton had a place for a while at the Chelsea Hotel, where Virgil Thomson and other musicians, artists, writers, and members of the higher bohemia lived. It was at the Chelsea that Delmore Schwartz, under the paranoid illusion that Hilton was sleeping with his wife—Schwartz also thought Nelson Rockefeller was sleeping with her—banged on Hilton’s door with a pistol, demanding to be let in. When I met him, Hilton lived in Hoboken, in an inexpensive apartment large enough to house his already ample collection of books.
Among Hilton’s circle of friends in those days were enough odd types to fill three more volumes of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. There was Vernon Young, an English highbrow film reviewer, who wore Bertrand Russell-like high-collared shirts and lived off the hospitality of women, in on whom he regularly moved. He once asked Hilton, with great hauteur, what he thought Americans meant when they said, upon parting, “Have fun.” There was Edouard Roditi, a homosexual Sephardi Jew who wrote poetry, a book on Oscar Wilde, and translations from the Turkish, German, and French. Roditi once published a quite hopeless piece in The New Leader about some controversy within the Olympic Committee over volleyball. Hilton and I laughed at the spectacle of this international aesthete, hounded at the time by the French government for consorting with Algerian boys, trying to wangle a $25 check from the magazine for a piece on a subject on which he could scarcely have cared less. There was Sydney Freedberg, who wrote for Hilton at Arts and went on to a professorship in art history at Harvard. Hilton once told me of being at Harvard with Sydney, who, though born in America, adopted an English accent (“sheer pretension” was the reason he gave Hilton when queried about its provenance). They were there for the dedication of a new sculpture garden and, as it turned out, a heavily platitude-laden speech by Derek Bok, the university’s president. “President of Harvard,” Sydney Freedberg whispered in his English accent to Hilton midway through the speech. “Bet you didn’t think he could be so fucking stupid.”
Hilton had innumerable stories, most having to do with outrageous behavior (“Scandalous!”) and ill-hidden ambitions (“Shameless!”). When I once mentioned a rather gaudy woman I had met at a party, he replied, “Next to Jack Kroll’s prose [Kroll was then a very with-it writer on culture for Newsweek], she’s the vulgarest thing in New York.” He was absolutely Jamesian at spying out people’s motives, and therefore not a man whom one did well to attempt to con.
If Hilton had a cultural hero, a figure on whom he may be said loosely to have modeled himself, it was Henry James. He knew and loved James’s fiction, but he also had great regard for James as a critic of art and literature. He admired his cosmopolitanism, his olympian detachment, and he never lost sight of what many people forget—that Henry James could be an immensely funny writer. In its obliquity, some of Hilton’s own wit was distinctly in the Jamesian mode.
Hilton seemed to me smart not only about art but about the world. He was as far as possible from being a Freudian, but I recall him telling me never to underestimate the power of sexual attraction among human motivations, especially among those who fancy themselves high-minded. Once, talking about the novels of Theodore Dreiser, he told me that all writers could be divided between those who relied on irony and those who didn’t—and those who didn’t were better.
During those New Leader days, we mostly laughed at that capacious book known as the human comedy, specifically at its intellectual chapters. I had assigned a few book reviews to Richard Howard, the translator and poet, and a man so stuffed with literary knowledge that his own prose was clotted and mottled with endless allusions. I recall the laugh I got out of Hilton when I told him that Richard Howard is the only man I knew who might choose to begin a piece with a parenthesis. He filled me in on stories about Mary McCarthy, Philip Rahv, and the Partisan Review gang. When Mary McCarthy left Rahv, with whom she was living, to marry Edmund Wilson, Hilton said that it was perfectly understandable; after all Wilson was the better and more powerful critic. The calculating cold-bloodedness of Miss McCarthy was of course the point of the story.
I was once invited to dinner at the loft apartment (before lofts were fashionable) in Hoboken of Hilton’s friend—and later wife —Esta Leslie. Esta was a serious cook, who would drive twenty miles for better tomatoes or delay dinner for two hours while a pepper properly marinated. (The food, let me add, was always worth the wait.) I remember the meal, leg of lamb nicely underdone, beautiful vegetables perfectly cooked, good wine, all accompanied by a fine flow of talk. The only distraction was a life-size nude painting of Esta on a bed, placed on a wall directly in my line of vision, done by her first husband, the Abstract Expressionist Alfred Leslie, who had recently entered his figurative painting phase.
For reasons too elaborate and boring to go into here, I left The New Leader roughly a year after Hilton arrived there. By then our friendship was solidified, and continued by letter and by his occasional postcards written in a minuscule but always legible hand. I cannot vouch for my letters to him, but his to me were informative, penetrating, amusing, always with a nice touch of indiscretion, which T. S. Eliot claimed that every good letter should contain. I don’t have the letter before me, but in a characteristic touch I recall Hilton writing: “Saw Ted Solotaroff [an editor at Commentary, later the founder of The New American Review] yesterday; he seemed mildly depressed. Things must be looking up for him.”
In 1965 Hilton took a job at The New York Times, where he soon replaced John Canaday as the paper’s first critic of the visual arts. In an attempt to go upmarket intellectually, the paper hired Hilton to write about art and Stanley Kauffmann to write about theater. Hilton was interviewed for the job by Clifton Daniel, Harry Truman’s son-in-law and then the editor of the paper. In describing his interview with Daniel, Hilton mentioned that he had brought along a number of his essays, but Daniel wasn’t much interested in talking about them. “He opened a copy of Partisan Review to a piece of mine, and his pencil landed on an idea,” Hilton said, “which he apparently was not up to discussing.”
While Hilton was at The New York Times it was like having a friend at the Kremlin. He had rollicking stories about various Times characters: Sydney Gruson, a former bellboy who kept race horses when he was the paper’s Mexico City correspondent and was the first man to wear colored shirts with white colors and cuffs; Arthur Gelb, who served as the editor Abe Rosenthal’s hatchet man, keeping reporters and editors in line with bullying; Charlotte Curtis, the paper’s society editor whose own social-climbing antics were always worth recounting; Howard Taubman, once the paper’s drama critic, now left to sit in expensive suits writing paragraph-long squibs on old movies; the great publisher himself, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, whom Hilton never referred to in conversation with me as other than “Punchy.”
Hilton’s friends on the paper tended to be the other arts writers. He had genuine respect for the architectural criticism of Ada Louise Huxtable. He brought the critic John Russell in from London to work on the paper, and he did a nice imitation of Russell’s appallation when being told that TheNew York Times was planning a special weekly section called “Home.” His best friend on the Times, though, was Grace Glueck, a woman of acuity and a sense of humor to match Hilton’s own. I once met Grace for a delightful breakfast in Evanston, and as we were parting, she asked me how to get to Oak Park, where she had an appointment. I started to draw a map for her. “No, no,” she said. “Just point the way. I’m always forty-five minutes late wherever I go. It doesn’t matter.”
The reason it didn’t matter, of course, was that she worked for The New York Times. The power of the Times in those days was unsurpassed. I recall that the Art Institute in Chicago mounted a major show a day early for Hilton because its originally scheduled opening conflicted with his schedule. My wife and I once traveled to New Orleans to meet Esta and Hilton in New Orleans, where Hilton was giving a talk and covering a show. When we arrived, we discovered that a wealthy arts patron in town had been assigned to the Kramers, and took them, and us with them, to Antoine’s, Brennan’s, and other of the more famous restaurants where she had her own personal waiters—such was the power of The New York Times and of Times men.
At the Times Hilton wrote lengthy, strong pieces on the fraudulent piety surrounding the blacklisted Hollywood writers, on the Hiss-Chambers case, on the pressures put upon Russian artists in the Soviet Union, on the heroism of Matisse, and on many other subjects. Such was the reputation for integrity Hilton acquired while at The New York Times that Alexander Solzhenitsyn, then living in Vermont after having been sent into exile by the leaders of the Soviet Union, agreed to be interviewed by only one man on the paper—Hilton Kramer. The respect of Solzhenitsyn, I have always thought, was one of the greatest of all tributes to Hilton.
This tribute was much greater, surely, than the Pulitzer Prize in arts criticism, which Hilton never won but should have, since no one, apart perhaps from Virgil Thomson in his days writing on music for TheNew York Herald-Tribune, wrote arts criticism so well as he. In a less politicized world, Hilton would have been elected a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, though I don’t know whom among the stiffs who are members he would have found to talk to there.
Not, so far as I know, that Hilton yearned for such recognition from so thin an establishment. His intellectual independence set him apart. This same independence caused him to leave The New York Times in 1982 to found, with his friend the music critic Sam Lipman, The New Criterion. I have heard people say that his doing so was a mistake, for at the Times he had a forum like no other in the country, perhaps in the world. Yet it is doubtful that Hilton’s strong views, his utter unwillingness to go along with the show, could have survived the regimes at the paper under the editorships of Howell Raines and Bill Keller.
Impossible to imagine Hilton trimming his sails by altering his positions, or modifying his views, to accommodate a changing management, or even a changing zeitgeist. Hilton said what he thought, even if it worked against him. He hated a lie, despised fraudulence, always shot from the hip. He never looked over his shoulder to discover who did or did not approve. He knew what he knew, and said what he felt needed saying.
Once, at Northwestern, I was in the audience when he was on a panel with the critic Erich Heller, the biographer Richard Ellmann, and an academic-painter named George Cohen discussing some lofty topic; it might have been “Technology and Modernism.” Hilton was the last to speak. “As I look about me,” he began, “I note that I am the only non-academic on this panel, for I am a mere journalist, a sojourner in the epiphenomena of the everyday. . .” (Did he lift that, I wondered, from Henry James?) And then he proceeded intellectually to dismantle and blow up the presentations of the other three men on the panel.
Later that same evening Hilton was assigned a sorority house on campus, where he was to answer questions about the night’s proceedings. I went along, and marveled at how gentle and instructive he was in answering what seemed to me the vague and uninteresting questions posed to him by undergraduates. When I told him so, he replied that it wasn’t made any easier by the prospect before him of a young man in the hallway kissing his date goodnight with his hand down her blouse.
On another occasion, Hilton and I were on a panel at a conference of small-circulation magazine editors in Los Angeles sponsored by TheNation. At one point, a woman in the audience rose to ask Hilton a question. He replied by saying that, though she may not have realized it, every assumption behind her question was false; and he then went on, point by point, to demonstrate how this was so. After this, a man in the audience got up to say that Hilton treated her so severely only because she was a woman. In a calm voice, Hilton, who rarely used profanity, announced: “You, sir, are full of shit. I treat everyone alike. If the woman whose question I answered would prefer that I treat her differently because she is a woman, let her stand up now and say so.”
For the most part, the obituaries greeting Hilton’s death have been generous and gracious. The one in The New York Times written by William Grimes was especially so, since Hilton was an unrelenting critic of the Times in what he considered its fall into the slough of liberal despond. But a few spoke of him as a “pugnacious writer on the arts” or “a polarizing critic,” and one ignorant blogger even took out after him for being against “the civil rights movement” and homosexuals. The fact was, as Hilton said that day in Los Angeles, he treated everyone alike. He was very much for the civil rights movement, and only opposed to such charlatans as Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Cornel West who tried to ride their blackness as if it were a donkey into Jerusalem. As a man entirely comfortable in the art world, Hilton had innumerable gay and lesbian friends, some among them dear friends: James Mellow, with whom he had grown up in Gloucester, the biographer of Gertrude Stein and Nathaniel Hawthorne, was a lifelong friend, and so was Josephine Herbst, whose literary executor he was. But he didn’t see this as any reason to give a pass to the poisonous views of Gore Vidal or pretend that the secondary poetry of Adrienne Rich was first-class. He loathed the crude intrusions of racial and sexual politics in art, and had no hesitation in explaining why in public and in a forthright way. Vaunting the shoddy in literature and visual art he considered no mere venial sin. He paid culture the respect of taking it with the utmost seriousness. Witty, wise, intellectually courageous, a kind and generous friend, Hilton Kramer was himself nothing if not serious. He is irreplaceable.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 9, on page 12
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